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Always Giving to Others? That’s Fine, If You Want to End Up a Stump

States of mind

I’ve long had a problem with the acclaimed Shel Silverstein picture book The Giving Tree. It’s the story of a “friendship” between a tree and a boy in which the tree progressively gives everything it has–starting with the reasonable gifts of shade and fruit and a place to climb, but pushing on to the point where it urges the boy to cut it down–in order to make the boy happy.

Don’t get me wrong: giving is wonderful. What’s not wonderful is giving everything you have and are away. Self-sacrifice is one of the 18 problem mental schemas covered by the school of psychology known as schema therapy (see “Mental Schemas #13: Self-Sacrifice“).

Women seem to be disproportionately the victims of self-sacrifice. While many of us grow up with the message that it’s better to give than to receive, it seems that girls more often than boys are told that it’s always right to do things for others and never right to do things for ourselves.

Healthy relationships require balance. Everyone involved in the relationship is important, and when the needs of one person completely trump the needs of the other, both suffer. The giving side of this is called self-sacrifice; the taking side is another mental schema, Entitlement, and it’s not particularly fun to be afflicted with either.

What makes the boy in the story so comfortable hurting the tree to benefit himself? Why, when the tree is demonstrating such extraordinary consideration for him, does he feel so little concern for her?

Some people interpret the story as a straightforward parable of parents and children, and I suspect it was intended this way. The problem is that as much as a parent-child relationship for a long time is a lopsided arrangement, children are not so important that adults should ignore their own needs entirely in order to satisfy the child’s every whim. If this sounds insufficiently nurturing, consider this: one of the most important jobs parents have is modeling strong, healthy relationships. A child who gets everything while the parents give everything either follows the parent’s model and becomes a tool for the takers of the world, or (more likely) grows up with a sense of being the center of the universe, not subject to the same rules as everyone else, entitled to do anything that seems necessary to get a desired outcome–in other words, a taker him- or herself.

Another thing to consider about self-sacrifice is that sacrificing so much that one’s needs aren’t getting met usually results in emotional trouble. We all need a certain amount of love, consideration, and support. When we tell everyone else that they should take everything they want from us and never need to give anything back, we don’t get those things, and as a result we become stunted and often bitter. By giving everything, we end up having less available to give, just as the tree could have continued giving shade, apples, oxygen, and a place to play for generations if it hadn’t tried to give up its entire being just so the boy could make a boat.

To really be able to give the most to others, we have to be willing to receive some things ourselves.

Photo by karenhdy

Added afterward: In the same vein, Alison Cherry has an eye-opening version of the story on her site at .



  1. Julie Hannah  •  Feb 9, 2012 @2:13 pm

    I’m glad I’m not the only one that was turned off by that book! You are absolutely right – relationships should be a two-way process to be healthy. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Christians who believe that “following the example of Jesus” means giving up all your rights, even your life, just like he did. That may not be the root of all such martyr-based relationships, but it counts for a large portion of them.

  2. Luc  •  Feb 9, 2012 @2:37 pm

    Jesus is a really interesting example, Julie, for Christians and non-Christians, because I’m not sure he fits the pattern of unhealthy self-sacrifice. He had very specific goals and morals and ultimately was killed for them, and I think the same can be said for many other people who are widely admired–Dr. King, for example.

    I think giving one’s life wholeheartedly for what you believe in, whether you’re doing that in the sense of actually having to die or in the sense of making all of your other decisions part of it, is a different animal than just giving up anything of yours that someone asks for. I’m having a hard time figuring out how to characterize the distinction, but it seems like an important one to me, and I wonder if it doesn’t come down to whether or not you’re pursuing what’s important to you rather than only what’s important to others.

  3. Tim Canny  •  Feb 9, 2012 @4:57 pm

    There is definitely a difference between being a martyr and being a door mat. The example of Jesus is a good one. While he gave himself over completely for the salvation of mankind he still had/has some very specific expectations of those who would follow him. It is similar to a parent/child relationship where the parent may love their child unconditionally but that parent still has expectations of what kind of person that child should be. It’s almost a kind of “pay it forward” situation. But in the book the child simply seems to take and take and take without any realization that the idea was not to take from the tree but to be more like the tree.

  4. Julie Hannah  •  Feb 9, 2012 @6:40 pm

    I think the distinction I was trying to make is that Christians sometimes act like a martyr for the sake of ONE person, or a few people (family, friends), who are completely unappreciative and unmoved by their sacrifices. I agree with you that if you are sacrificing your life for an IDEAL that will improve life for large swaths of mankind, that’s entirely different, and not unhealthy, but quite admirable. But some Christian (women, usually) think that means they should marry some useless bastard and try to “save” him by their example of continuous self-sacrifice.

  5. Luc  •  Feb 9, 2012 @8:06 pm

    Yes, that sure is a bad application of “what would Jesus do?”

  6. Pat Reid  •  Feb 13, 2012 @2:42 pm


    This is such a good article, I really never thought of “giving” in this way…

    I’m re-thinking some big things now and will take your article to heart.

    Thanks a bunch.

  7. Julie Hannah  •  Feb 14, 2012 @11:28 am

    I see you get your wit from your mom : )

    Being both a child and a parent, I can say that no matter what “expectations” you may have for your offspring, or how good of an example you set, they may still disappoint you. For example: my husband and I are both happy and successful because of our choices; but our sisters, raised by the same parents, are not doing so well due to their own poor choices.

    I didn’t create my child to be a copy of me, but to be her own person. When she is young, of course I will have to set boundaries for her safety, and care for her according to my own values. But if she then grows up to reject everything I hold dear – so be it. Of course, I HOPE to spare her some of the hardships I went through by sharing the wisdom of my experience, but whether she chooses to heed that advice is her decision.

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